Interview with leader of new opposition group – Sunshine Uzbekistan

As Uzbek authorities face increased Western pressure for an international probe into the deadly crackdown in the eastern city of Andijan last month, a new local opposition group, Serkuyosh Uzbekistonim (Sunshine Uzbekistan) has called for action from Washington increase the pressure for reform of the current regime.

Looking beyond the rule of President Islam Karimov and taking note of events in Kyrgyzstan in March that swept away the old order, the group has also called for peaceful change and economic liberalisation, in a rare assertion of dissent. IRIN spoke to the leader of Sunshine Uzbekistan, Sanjar Umarov, in the capital, Tashkent.

QUESTION: How exactly did your group come together and who are its members?

ANSWER: The idea came to me after the events of March 24 in Bishkek [when the government of Askar Akayev was ousted in a popular uprising]. I then realised that sooner or later, the same fate awaited the Uzbek regime and that when it falls, there must be a plan in place for saving our country from economic and political chaos.

I discussed this idea with the leader of Ozod Dehkonlar (Free Peasants) Party, Nigora Khidoyatova and she agreed that we should form an organisation that would work towards the preparation of an economic and social reform programme for the country. That is how the Coalition for Socio-Economic Reform, known as "Sunshine Uzbekistan" was born in early April.

Then the tragic events in Andijan occurred and it became clear that the political order in our country was deteriorating much faster than anticipated. In response to the events in Andijan, our coalition began to attract many entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and mid-level government officials.

These people believe that we should work not only on an economic reform programme but also work on creating a peaceful political transition that will avoid the disintegration of the Uzbek nation. We want to engage in a dialogue with the current regime to bring about peaceful change.

Q: Uzbekistan is not noted for tolerating opposing viewpoints. Will Tashkent listen to you?

A: Sunshine Uzbekistan is not a revolutionary or extremist group. We ask all our members to respect and support our constitution. But at the same time, respecting our constitution does not mean that we have abandoned our right to express our opinions on matters of grave urgency to our country. We will continue to do so within the framework of our constitution.

Q: In your recent open letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, you maintained that the government's bloody suppression of a protest in Andijan last month shocked Uzbek citizens. Can you elaborate further?

A: The events in Andijan have revealed the real nature of the current regime to every citizen of Uzbekistan. How can one not be shocked when our security services and armed forces open fire on women and children? The realisation that this did happen and that it could happen again, has shocked the people out of their prolonged state of political apathy.

Sunshine Uzbekistan exists so that these average people, who in the past may not have wanted to risk being labelled as an extremist or revolutionary, can have a place to express their hopes and desires for a peaceful end to the current regime's cruelty towards its own people.

Q: Do you see such incidents as a source of destabilisation in the country?

A: The possibility of such incidents, if desperation takes people once again to the streets and they are met with the same action by our security services, haunts all thoughtful Uzbeks. The tragedy of the current regime is that they don't understand that their unwillingness to engage in a dialogue with the democratic opposition is the most immediate source of instability in Uzbekistan today.

Q: How would you describe the current state of human rights in Uzbekistan today? Will your group address human rights issues?

A: We understand that the terrible human rights abuses of the current regime deeply concern the international community and that only those governments that respect human rights can expect the respect and support of the people. That’s why, in our letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, we publicly stated our commitment to a political amnesty.

Q: As a businessman heading up this group, you have stated you would like to see greater economic reform. Exactly what kind of reforms would you like to see implemented and how would they help the average Uzbek, many of whom remain impoverished?

A: We are looking to establish a society that would be characterised by the idea of democratic capitalism. Prior to the installation of Soviet power, the Uzbek people were known for centuries as one of the world's greatest entrepreneurial nations. Commerce and trade are in our blood. Unfortunately, the Soviet regime - and the current regime - have done everything possible to frustrate our natural ability to build a vibrant economy.

The creation of a vibrant economy, where everybody has the chance to earn their bread, first of all depends on the existence of a system that protects the people from the arbitrary confiscation of the fruits of their labour. Today in Uzbekistan, we have the opposite.

The system has been designed to provide any high governmental official or petty local official with the ability to simply take away anyone's property, whether it is a farm or a business, through the abuse of our terrible tax and legal codes. This of course makes attracting foreign investment necessary for the creation of jobs very difficult. So, the first thing that needs to be done is to radically simplify our tax and regulatory system so that government officials cannot abuse their positions.

Yes, poverty in Uzbekistan is our greatest social problem. But this poverty is also a function of the government's own policies. As you know, most Uzbeks are peasant farmers. The best and fastest way to improve the life of the average Uzbek is to provide farmers with the opportunity to get a fair, cash price for their crops. This, in the first instance, means the immediate abolishment of the cotton monopoly and increasing the domestic price for raw cotton.

Secondly, it means establishing a concentrated and long-term programme to diversify our agriculture away from cotton and towards the production of high value fruit and vegetable products. These objectives can be met through market-based incentives. I am absolutely convinced that once the farmer is free to pursue his own interests as he sees them, our country will become the envy of Central Asia.

Q: Last week president Karimov signed a number of degrees to speed up liberalisation of the economy, reduce official control over small and medium scale business in order to “improve the lives of every citizen" in the Central Asian country. Is this not a sign of government’s willingness to reform?

A: Deja vu! If government decrees alone could build a market economy and stimulate small businesses, Uzbekistan would already be paradise. The problem with the current regime's economic policies is that their decrees are not worth the paper they are written on. We have seen this hundreds times over the last 15 years. The only way to liberalise the economy and stimulate small business is to free our country from the selfish clique that controls our government.

Q: What makes you believe that the president will respond your calls? If not, what will be your next plans?

A: I hope he understands that we are his last chance to save Uzbekistan from collapse.